Thicker than Oil

'There Will Be Blood'

Why is it that the great characters of fiction and drama always, finally, elude us? Hamlet, Phaedra, Charles Foster Kane, the bums waiting for Godot, Anna Karenina, Huck Finn: they lure us on and lure us on and then they turn into Mona Lisas. Critic Eric Bentley wrote that the “enigmatic nature of great characters also carries a cosmic implication: that life is but a small light in the midst of a vast darkness.” That strikes me as profoundly true, for the great characters not only emerge out of that darkness but also carry that darkness within them.

It’s a good joke, then, that the first movie character in a long time to possess at least a glimmer of greatness should be named Plainview, since the oilman-protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!) is ultimately as opaque as he is fascinating. And precisely because of this final bafflement, it was essential for the character to appeal to our common humanity early in the movie so that it would be worth our while to wade through much obscurity toward a light we might never reach.

And this is what Anderson so brilliantly does in the long, silent sequence that opens his film. Though he will secure his fortune as a California oil entrepreneur in the first decade of the twentieth century, Daniel Plainview is first presented working a small silver mine all alone. When he falls...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.